Then There's This: Redemption, Texas
Theatre en Bloc brings one gay rights activist's fight to the stage
More than a decade after the Texas Legislature passed the historic James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, a young Austin theatre company is paying homage to the gay rights leader who led the fight to include LGBT protections in the bill – a monumental feat that would be impossible in today's Tea Party climate.
Theatre en Bloc's production of Dennis Bailey's Just Outside Redemption premieres tonight, Sept. 13, and runs four nights nights a week through Sept. 30 at City Theatre, 3823 Airport.
Led by co-directors Derek Kolluri and Jenny Lavery, Theatre en Bloc operates under the motto "great art fosters great communities," and as such hopes that by shining a spotlight on the work of Dianne Hardy-Garcia – the inspiration for Bailey's play – the show will inspire others to lend their voices to causes that strengthen communities. As Lavery tells it, Hardy-Garcia was profiled in a chapter of Brave Journeys that Bailey co-authored with David Mixner in 2000. "Dennis was always intrigued and specifically inspired by Dianne and her work and ... knew that this particular story had dramatic storytelling potential." He wrote a script and then put it on the shelf where it stayed for several years. After working with Kolluri in Dead White Males three years ago, Bailey pitched the play.
As former director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (now Equality Texas, which is partnering with Theatre en Bloc on the production), Hardy-Garcia spent years leading marches down Congress Avenue, rallying on the south steps of the Capitol, and politely lobbying legislators on both sides of the aisle. She spent as much time trying to fend off anti-gay bills as she did promoting a stronger hate crimes law that would cover LGBT citizens. The effort took on greater urgency after the 1998 killing of a black man in East Texas.
Hardy-Garcia learned the art of forging friendships with legislators from two important mentors – activist/lobbyist Bettie Naylor, who died earlier this year, and Houston Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a veteran fighter for justice who is currently fighting to retain her seat. The political arm of Equality Texas will host Saturday night's performance of Just Outside Redemption with a fundraiser to help the campaign efforts of Thompson and Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis, both familiar figures around Austin. Hardy-Garcia, now an L.A. transplant, will attend Friday and Saturday's performances.
Though her character is the star of the show, she is quick to deflect the attention she's drawing from the play, insisting the credit goes to the hundreds of volunteers, allies in the Lege, and the testimony and perseverance of families of hate crime victims such as Ernest Saldaña of Austin, beaten to death in 1994 for being gay, and Byrd, chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for three miles.
The 2001 legislation bearing Byrd's name was first introduced in the 1999 session, less than a year after his murder. But it stood in the way of Gov. George W. Bush's path to the White House. As the Chronicle's Erica C. Barnett wrote at the time: "It took the brutal murder of a disabled black man in Jasper to convince House members to support a comprehensive hate crimes bill. ... It took four Republican senators, a presidential candidate, and 11 hours of back-room finagling to derail it in the Senate."
When the bill returned to the Lege two years later, Gov. Rick Perry was in charge. Of course, the gay component of the bill was the key sticking point for the homophobic crowd running the Capitol; they wanted the language pertaining to gays deleted, but the measure's African-American sponsors – Thompson in the House and Sen. Rodney Ellis in the Senate – would not be moved. Hardy-Garcia recalls the point at which she thought former Rep. Warren Chisum – the most prolific author of anti-gay bills – would help move the House vote to the "yes" column.
During a debate between the two on the UT campus, Hardy-Garcia said she was surprised to hear Chisum express profound sympathy for hate crime victims. Suddenly, as she put it, a "duh!" moment became an "ah-ha" opportunity. Hardy-Garcia returned to the Capitol that evening and found Thompson in her office. "I said, 'I think he [Chisum] might be worth an ask.'" Thompson thought a moment, then picked up the phone. "She called him and said: 'You know my hate crime bill's coming up. What can I do to get your vote?"' His first suggestion was to remove the LGBT language. Thompson refused. From there the two went back and forth on the definition of gays until agreeing on changing sexual "orientation" to "preference." True, the term "preference" is offensive to the gay community, but the modification was necessary to win Chisum over and move the bill closer to the goal line, Hardy-Garcia said. It stalled in the Senate when Perry briefly threatened to veto it, but he ultimately backed off and the bill landed on his desk. When Perry penned his name to the bill during a signing ceremony, Byrd's mother, Stella, wept quietly in her wheelchair. She died in 2010.
"One of the key goals [of the bill] was to deter and lessen the number of hate crimes in our state," Hardy-Garcia says, pointing to Department of Public Safety statistics that reflect a steady decline in the number of hate crimes reported. However, the work to end hate-related violence in Texas didn't stop with the Byrd legislation. "There is always more to be done. As Mrs. Byrd said back then, no one should suffer the devastation of these types of crimes. If this bill can help prevent a few others from experiencing these crimes, that is the important thing. I think she was right – and I believe the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act was a significant step toward helping us do that."
Michael King's "Point Austin" returns next week.